Just in case you could use one more reason to eat chocolate today ...
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In addition to being remarkably versatile as a team player in everything from spicy mole sauce to sweet Chocolate-Fudge Pudding Cake, chocolate has been found to be one of the best foods to boost your mood. Research also suggests that a couple of servings per week might be the sweet spot to reduce risk for diabetes and heart disease. Oh, yes, and it tastes incredible too!

A new study published June 2022 in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition adds another piece of evidence to the growing list of reasons why you should add chocolate to your menu this week. Cocoa—in particular, the flavanols it delivers to the body—can help decrease blood pressure and reduce arterial stiffness as much as some blood pressure medications.

What This Heart-Health Study Found

Flavanols are a type of antioxidant found in kale, red wine, berries, tomatoes and more, as well as chocolate. In previous research, cocoa flavanols have been linked to blood pressure benefits, but only within controlled clinical settings. So for this small study, English researchers tapped 11 healthy participants to test their theory of cocoa's impact on blood pressure in real-world settings.

"High blood pressure and arterial stiffness can increase a person's risk of heart disease and strokes, so it is crucial that we investigate innovative ways to treat such conditions. Before we even consider introducing cocoa into clinical practices, we need to test if the results previously reported in laboratory settings safely translate into real-world settings, with people going about their everyday lives," Christian Heiss, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Surrey, tells University of Surrey News.

Over the course of eight days, each study participant consumed six cocoa flavanol capsules one day, then six placebo capsules the next, alternating days throughout the study. They tracked blood pressure via an upper arm monitor, and tracked arterial stiffness using a finger clip that measured a biometric called "pulse wave velocity," or PWV. The scientists asked each person to measure their blood pressure and PWV at three times:

  • Before consuming the capsules
  • Every 30 minutes for the first three hours post-capsule
  • Every 60 minutes for the next nine hours

Blood pressure and arterial stiffness levels decreased among those who started the day with higher blood pressure, but there was no effect on those who had low blood pressure in the morning before they popped their pill. Among those for whom it did move the needle, however, the scientists discovered a fascinating detail: The blood pressure and arterial stiffness improvements were still seen eight hours after the cocoa was consumed. They guess that this second peak in blood pressure benefits (after the first noted benefit about three hours after consumption) might be due to how good bacteria in the gut metabolize the flavanols in cocoa.

High angle view of pitcher pouring hot chocolate in cup on table
Credit: Penny De Los Santos

"The positive impact cocoa flavanols have on our cardiovascular system, in particular, blood vessel function and blood pressure, is undeniable. Doctors often fear that some blood pressure tablets can decrease the blood pressure too much on some days," Heiss says, explaining why cocoa might be a potential first course of treatment for people who have mild hypertension. "What we have found indicates that cocoa flavanols only decrease blood pressure if it is elevated. Working with participants' personal health technologies showed us how variable blood pressure and arterial stiffness can be from day to day and shows the role of personal health monitors in developing and implementing effective personalized care." (ICYMI, these 3 things can help lower your high blood pressure—even when medicine isn't helping.)

The Bottom Line

While small and short, this new heart-health study suggests that cocoa flavanols might be a potential treatment option for people who have slightly elevated blood pressure. Longer, larger studies are required to confirm these findings, and to land on how much of a dose will do the job. Plus, as with any study, this shouldn't be a replacement for a conversation with your primary care doctor if you notice your blood pressure readings are high. That said, it certainly can't hurt to incorporate cocoa into your diet a few times per week to give your heart a little extra TLC.

Score some heart-healthy menu inspiration from our healthy high blood pressure meal plan for beginners, then sprinkle in a few more cocoa-inclusive recipes like our Cherry-Cocoa-Pistachio Energy Balls, Cherry-Mocha Smoothie, Chocolate-Raspberry Oatmeal or Cocoa-Chia Pudding with Raspberries. Bonus points if you enjoy one of those in the A.M.: One 2021 study found that eating chocolate at breakfast may have health benefits. (You don't have to ask us twice!)